Written by Mathew Goldberg


I sit squished against my student’s side in the single wooden chair stationed in front of the class computer. Our fingers bang against the keyboard in a dashing fury, pressing our respective keys: punch, kick, combination move. A crowd of students watch Tae Kwan and I play Tekken Street Fight. Exasperated cheers in broken English overwhelm the classroom. I smile, feeling reinvigorated and alive in these ten minutes between classes. All the while, I dread the bell as much as my students, reluctant to resume teaching.

The hallway is in its usual disarray with innocuous fights and student horseplay, but I remain focused on the glowing monitor. Tae Kwan snickers, “Die, Mat. Die!” when we hear a jolting yell.

My stomach sinks. The classroom window shatters under the force of flesh. I jump out of the seat and run into the hall to see He Young thrashing against the wall still screaming. Students are hovering, but I am the only teacher around. Blood drips from the fractured window. Queasy, unsure, and impulsive, I grab He Young and repeat, “It is okay. Calm down. Just listen to me.” His body is rattling with anger and he could easily throw me to the side, but he doesn’t. The math teacher steps in and begins talking to He Young in Korean. My hold weakens as He Young’s shoulders collapse, blood still oozing from his knuckles. Moments later, He Young, the teacher, and a fellow student are proceeding downstairs to find the nurse and go to the hospital. Two other students are grabbing the broom and dustpan and begin cleaning. The rest of the hall disperses, leaving me in an eerie silence.

Last Chance 2014. Hannah Shannon. Jeju.
Last Chance 2014. Hannah Shannon. Jeju.


The bell rings. English class is over. Students lift their heads and rub the sleepiness from their eyes, readying to leap from their desks and run to the maejeom [1] or into the hallway. I maneuver through the mayhem that now feels familiar, looking for He Young. I notice he’s leaning against the window outside his homeroom class. He is short in stature, beaming with a charismatic smile; I look at him and see a person who is as clever and kind as he is misunderstood. I call to him. He swipes his hand through his auburn-brown hair, walking toward me through the maze of students with a tough façade.

“Mathew, what?” he whines.

“Why, did you drop out of the speaking contest today?”

“English, boring.”

“Lies, you are so good at English. You are one of my top students.”

He Young laughs and says, “Thanks, Mat. Class time, sorry.”

I am left, unsatisfied and confused. Later, I see He Young again out of class and run up to him. “We didn’t finish talking.”

He Young looks at me in frustration. “I don’t know English words.”

“That’s okay. Try.”

“I am scared … Why do you want me?”

It’s my turn to laugh at his words. “Why, because you have great English, you are a leader in school, and I believe you can win the competition.”

“Mat, phone,” he commands. I pull up the translating app and hand it over. When he holds the phone to my face, the translation reads, Shame.

“What, why?”

“I get angry. I can’t … control myself. I can hurt what people think of school. I don’t trust myself with people.”

Anger management problems. “How do you control your anger?” I ask, concerned.

“I use to go to hospital. But, girlfriend helps me now.”

“Ah, that’s good.” I say plainly, unable to communicate my feelings. I wrestle with my next words and whether to hug him. I want him to know he can trust me; that I believe in him. But instead all I say is, “Will you think about the speaking contest?”

I settle on giving him a high five, and we head in opposite directions. Awkwardness and disappointment swell in me.

Later that night, He Young texts me. My fingers open the message in nervous excitement. He writes “Thank you for the many opportunities ☺”

This was my second chance. This was my opportunity to be the person I want to be for him. To be more than a teacher and to be a part of his life. I craft my words carefully and push send with renewed hope. We continue talking until we exchange our goodnights. He calls me Mat brother, and I fall asleep proudly, wishing Mat teacher and Mat brother could coexist. But I know that tomorrow if He Young sees me, he will call me Mat teacher, but silently I will hope to hear Mat brother.

Looking Down. Donald Bauer Jr. Masan.


Two days later, He Young storms into the classroom where I am playing with Tae Kwan. Enraged, he slams his fist against the black board slurring curses in Korean.

“He Young, what’s wrong?” I ask, while still engaged in the computer game. He Young doesn’t respond and I feel conflicted. I lean backwards in the chair preparing to jump up, but I hesitate, continuing to kick, punch, and battle. My fingers can’t compete against Tae Kwan as he delivers punch after punch. He Young walks out of the classroom. My attention is divided: Should I follow He Young outside to make sure he is okay? This is my first time invited to play with Tae Kwan and his friends. By leaving do I risk my friendship with Tae Kwan? I decide to stay, noticing He Young and his girlfriend talking. Everything is okay. Minutes later, a scream and the sound of glass shattering tell me I was wrong.

He Young’s mother enters the gymuoshil [2] with her son behind her. Their resemblance is undeniable. I scan over his face, noticing he has his mother’s eyes and a similar dimple on his right side and wonder if he’s a momma’s boy at heart. A cast masks his bruised and cut hand. I sit stationary at my desk, finding it painful to look at him as it only reminds me of my disappointment in myself, my anger at my inaction. I saw the signs, and I chose to ignore them, wanting to play, convincing myself that I wasn’t a teacher.

I reach out to He Young over text that night, too cowardly to talk to him in person.

“I’m very ashamed,” he writes. It was only a few days ago we translated that word together. Now he writes it while carrying a new burden.

“Don’t be ashamed. We all make mistakes.” I respond, wishing he will forgive himself and recognize his talents and potential. But,  He Young isn’t the only one feeling ashamed. I replay the experience repeatedly in my mind, believing I could have made a difference.

He Young ends the conversation saying, “Thanks Mat” like nothing has changed. I think about balance, and how much I value both sides of our relationship. Being friends with students like He Young has motivated me to become a better teacher inside and outside of the classroom. It has enabled my students to become my teachers, instilling within them needed confidence. Those moments are too important for these friendships to be a mistake. No, I wasn’t wrong to want to be friends with my students; my mistake was to believe I could not be both a good teacher and a good friend.


Mathew Goldberg is an 2014 – 2015 ETA at Naju Technical High School in Naju, Jeollanam-do.

[1]     convenience store
[2]     teachers’ office